Wednesday, July 19, 2017

RSS - the ugly duckling of edtech

I was glad to read a post by Doug Belshaw, Back to the RSS(R), in defence of the seriously untrendy technology RSS as a way of managing your information feeds without getting trapped in the algorithm controlled filter bubble of social media. I have relied on my RSS-reader Netvibes for almost 10 years now and it's still my main source of news, articles and publications in my field. Actaully I couldn't write this blog without it. In recent years however it has largely drifted out of sight and many sites forget to include an RSS feed. Of course I can follow these sites on Facebook or Twitter and in some cases I do, but RSS gives you the full news feed, not edited highlights. The trouble with following sites via social media is that I am helplessly dependent on the mysterious algorithms that control what news I see. Often I miss important news from a friend or site because for some reason Facebook didn't chose to show me that particular update. The updates also get lost in the crowd of posts in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The biggest problem with RSS has been its extremely dull name that suggests something very technical and probably complicated. It is in fact quite the reverse and once you've got your RSS reader (Netvibes, Digg Reader, Feedly etc) up and running you can add new feeds with a couple of clicks. You decide what feeds to follow and all the posts on that feed are dutifully presented. I follow around a hundred sites (news, blogs, journals, organisations) and can browse through the day's headlines in a few minutes, only clicking on ones that awaken my curiosity. An added attraction is that most academic databases include RSS feeds (though some are extremely hard to find) and this means that you get alerts on new publications that match your search criteria.

Is it time to relaunch RSS, preferably with a new name? It's a more focused and comprehensive tool for keeping up to date with your field and deserves a better reputation. And it's good for your digital well-being, as Belshaw writes at the end of his post:

Don’t get me wrong, algorithmic news feeds can be useful, but they should be used as part of a wider, richer environment that you control. It’s tempting to use the metaphor of healthy eating here: are we carelessly consuming whatever junk information is served up to us, or are we carefully ensuring we get a balanced information diet, including your five-a-day?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Convenient truths

I have written many times about the convenient half-truths and catch-phrases that we all love to use when discussing the use of technology in education. This applies equally to both sides of the discussion: those who see the benefits of digitalisation and those who prefer traditional methods. We develop an arsenal of stories and narratives whose origins and evidence become ever more misty but are used again and again in articles and conference lectures simply because of their feel-good factor. However, because they are based more on emotions than evidence they become mantras that lead to trench warfare between the two sides. The narratives of digital natives, wisdom of the crowd, multitasking and education is broken are rather worn out but are somehow still so compelling. I'm guilty of contributing to the spread of these in the past but am becoming more wary of using such sweeping generalisations no matter how rhetorically effective they may still be.

Another well-worn narrative that deserves to be deflated is the one about educating students for jobs that don't exist yet. I have often used this one to good effect to justify the increased use of technology in education but I can recommend a new article on the topic by Benjamin Doxtdator, A Field Guide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’. There is, of course, a certain amount of truth in the argument but it is far from new. The article points back to similar statements back in 1957 in the western panic after the Soviet Union succeeded in launching the Sputnik satellite.

While the claim is often presented as a new and alarming fact or prediction about the future, Devereux C. Josephs said much the same in 1957 during a Conference on the American High School at the University of Chicago on October 28, less than a month after the Soviets launched Sputnik.

The same could easily have been said at many points in history. Who could have predicted that the school pupils of 1900 might later become pilots, radio technicians or female members of parliament? We have never been able to predict what changes in society or what new forms of work will emerge in the future and we never will. Doxtdator suggests that this argument, like many others used by advocates of technology inspired disruption in education, is a simplification of more complex social movements.

The kind of complex thinking we deserve about education won’t come in factoids or bullet-point lists of skills of the future. In fact, that kind of complex thinking is already out there, waiting.

Read the article for the full picture but my point here is that we all need to be more cautious about spreading these convenient and attractive narratives simply because they justify our position. Relying on slogans and half-truths only provokes a similar response from our critics and soon the discussion degenerates into a pie fight.